Silver Hannon: Divestment, Dialogue, and the Power of the People

Photo: Students sit-in at UCSB’s Cheadle Hall, part of a historic action coordinated across the UCs. The sit-ins led to four UC Chancellors  publicly endorsing the need for fossil fuel divestment.

By. Lillian Zhou

If there was one thing that Silver Hannon could tell all California university students, it would be this: Your voice matters.

Fossil Free UC logo from the Fossil Free UC website

Silver grew up in a conservative-leaning area of Boston, where she remembers having limited outlets for political conversations. When she moved across the country to study at the University of California, Berkeley, Silver found herself on a campus with a decades long legacy of democratic student-driven change. This culture of activism and the recent release of An Inconvenient Truth inspired her to get involved in environmental advocacy by joining a sustainability team (STeam) on campus. As an English major, Silver worked hard to gain footing in a community primarily composed of environmental majors and quickly found empowerment by participating in STeam’s direct action efforts.

Since her first move to get involved, Silver has played an impressive variety of positions and has recently retired as Campaign Director for Fossil Free UC. Fossil Free UC is a UC-wide coalition of activists whose primary goal is to pressure the UC Regents to retract all the investments they have put into the 200 fossil fuel companies with the largest carbon reserves. In 2014, this amounted to about $3 billion with $500 million in coal. Although the Regents voted against divestment in 2014, Fossil Free UC has successfully pressured the Regents to retract $350 million from coal, tar sands, and other fossil fuels since then.

Silver and Cal students sit-in at the UC Investment Office in Oakland, demanding that Regent Sherman, Chair of the Investment Subcommittee, moves to fully divest the UC from fossil fuels. Photo: The Daily Californian

The fight for divestment leaves much room for semantics — semantics backed up by tangible environmental consequences. In her advocacy, Silver has often received responses that seem to dance around truly committed divestment goals. Everything is going into the bucket, we’ll keep talking, and it’ll all be a part of the conversation are all typical of UC Regents responses, who ultimately have the power to define how their commitments to sustainability are realized. For example, while the Regents said no in 2014 to Fossil Free UC’s advocacy for the establishment of a UC divestment team in 2014, they vowed to take a more interdisciplinary approach to investment and put an additional $1 billion into “climate solutions”. Silver later found that this action amounted to a large donation to an environmental fund as opposed to strategic investment in renewable energy or climate adaptation measures. While this may point to progress, Silver always sees more work to be done.

With the billions of dollars left in fossil fuel companies, Silver remains resilient at the forefront of the divestment movement. Although the Regents tend to shy away from the word “divestment” and instead opt for words like “de-risking” and “prudence”, Silver sees these financially meaningful decisions as a product of pressure from the bottom up: “Society as a whole is made up of tons and tons of individuals who hold up these institutions. We don’t need to convince them. If we show enough social power, it would be untenable for them not to do the right thing.”

The UC Regents are appointed by the Governor of California for 12-year terms and have been known to be difficult to access. However, this has not stopped students from mounting a fight all over California with Silver coaching and coordinating information between campuses. On the ground, Silver’s campaigns have employed a variety of tactics to get students active, including petitions, and holding promotional and informational events. She explains, “It is about showing that students, young people and the public recognize the urgency of the climate crisis and, in doing so, want to call out the industry fueling it.”

A divestment protest put on by Fossil Free UW, photo taken by Joe Brusky on Flickr.

Despite the top-down institutions that give the Regents large amounts of financial power, Silver’s efforts on the ground mobilizing students to use their voices have won important victories. The most recent was the divestment of $150 million from several fossil fuel companies including Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco. Both of these companies are major supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Silver affirmed that the Regents’ decision reflected growing social pressure to withdraw support. Other universities across the country have also made concrete moves to divest from fossil fuel companies and other sources of climate change exacerbation. For example, Silver praised Barnard College’s recent divestment away from companies that vocalize skepticism of climate science or oppose climate mitigation policies. It is clear that the political, social, and economic complexity of a problem like climate change is reflected in the diversity of its solutions.

For Silver and Fossil Free UC, divestment from fossil fuels is both an obligation of physical environmental consequences as well as one of moral responsibility. As difficult as the UC Regents may be to reach, she maintains that students and other activists do not need to limit their action to the given narrow windows of access. Students ultimately have the power to vocalize their concerns and mobilize the numbers needed to achieve their goals. Silver emphasizes that adding your own voice to the uproar now is as important as ever: “In our political climate, where the EPA and Paris Climate Accords are on the chopping block, neutrality is a false choice. If a lot of us get together, we can get a lot done. And they will feel it.”

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